Pandemic, Creating a Usable Past: Epidemic History, COVID-19, and the Future of Health

May 8-9 Zoom Webinar


See the full program description here

Further reading and resources

In the face of COVID-19, historians of public health, nursing, and medicine come together to reflect on past epidemics and their implications for how we confront today’s unfolding crisis.

Those who study epidemics and pandemics in the past see powerful echoes in the present crisis. In the past as today, families and societies grappled with the sudden tragic loss of life. They debated the social and economic fallout from the epidemic. They struggled with tensions over the halting of commerce, the imposition of quarantines, and social distancing measures. They fought over the impact of public health measures on personal freedom and civil liberties. They tried to make sense of the different impact of disease across regions and populations, well-off and poor. They sought cures and prevention measures, even as dubious theories and fraudulent practices sprung up.  They argued over what forms of knowledge or faith would guide them through the calamity. They called for reinventing public health during the crisis, and for rethinking social priorities once the epidemic subsided. And, even as the toll of death widened, they planned for the uncertain future.

With history as our guide, this forum of epidemic experts explores how people and societies in former eras responded to pandemic challenges. What perspective does their experience offer for the present? What guidance does the past provide for the future of public health, health care, and public policy?

Sponsored by the American Association for the History of Medicine with support from Princeton University, Department of History

Session 1 | Explaining Epidemics: The Past in the Present (Introduction and Welcome)


Session 2 | Epidemics and Urban Centers: Different Cities, Disparate Experiences


  • Howard Markel, physician/historian, University of Michigan | Social Distancing/Urban Disparities
  • Evelynn Hammonds, Harvard University | On the Racial Effects of Epidemics
  • Kavita Sivaramakrishnan, Columbia University | Local and Global Effects
  • Gregg Mitman, University of Wisconsin, Madison | The Geopolitics of Ebola and COVID-19
  • Moderator: Pablo Gómez, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Session 3 | Battling Epidemics: Historian/Heath Care Practitioners Reflect on their Experiences on the Front Lines of Care


  • Barron Lerner, physician/historian, New York University | Trust, Expertise, and History
  • Carla Keirns, physician/historian, University of Kansas | Medical Ethics/Front line Care
  • Julie Fairman, nurse/historian, University of Pennsylvania | COVID-19 Through the Lens of Nursing
  • Chris Crenner, physician/historian, University of Kansas | The Challenge of Triage
  • Hughes Evans, physician/historian, Emory University | Downstream Effects in Pediatrics
  • Jeremy Greene, physician/historian, Johns Hopkins | The Past, Present, and Future of Tele-health
  • Moderator: Dominique Tobbell, University of Minnesota

Session 4 | Epidemic Responses: Civil Liberties and Public Health Politics


  • Barron Lerner, New York University | Pandemics and Civil Liberties
  • Richard Mizelle, University of Houston | Black Lives in the Wake of Calamity
  • David Barnes, University of Pennsylvania | Quarantine: Lessons from the Lazaretto
  • Moderator: Raúl Necochea, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Session 5 | Uncertain Knowledge in Epidemics: How Crises Spur New Therapies, Surveillance Practices, and Dubious Theories


  • Mariola Espinosa, University of Iowa | Theories of Race, Immunity, Yellow Fever
  • Emily Waples, Hiram College | Meaning and Politics of Symptoms in the 19th Century and Today
  • Graham Mooney, Johns Hopkins University | Infectious Disease Surveillance, 19th Century Origins and Legacy
  • Susan Lederer, University of Wisconsin, Madison | Convalescent Serum Therapy: Past and Present
  • Moderator: Carin Berkowitz, New Jersey Council of the Humanities

Session 6 | After Epidemics: The Challenge of Reinventing Public Health


Closing Discussion | Pandemic Legacies and the Future of Health


  • William Schneider, Indiana University | Why Some Pathogens Become Pandemics – Lessons from HIV/AIDS
  • Jacob Steere-Wiliams, College of Charleston | Disinfectants, Xenophobia, and Mistrust in the Face of Pandemics
  • Ruth Rogaski, Vanderbilt University | The Fraught Historical Legacies of Epidemics in East Asia – From Yersinia pestis to Coronavirus
  • Mical Raz, University of Rochester | COVID-19 – History and Health Policy Lessons
  • Moderator: Keith Wailoo, Princeton University